By Kenneth L. Kieser
December 1, 2011
So, it’s the holiday season and many will devour turkey. Did you ever wonder the history of wild turkey? Most importantly, why is there a domestic and wild version of this bird who dreads the holidays?
Spanish explorers discovered Mexico in 1517, and on this expedition they discovered large numbers of turkeys. The men took careful notes and documented every detail of the New World, but failed to tell us whether or not they found wild turkeys or domestic turkeys. Because of this oversight, some historians credit Christopher Columbus as the first European to lay eyes on a wild turkey during his fourth voyage.
The fact that there are two turkeys leads to a series of confusing questions. Why are there two kinds of turkeys? What’s the difference? And where do domestic turkeys come from in the first place?
The Tale of Two Turkeys
Both turkeys were common in Mexico in the 16th Century. Historians know that Indian tribes in Mexico, particularly the Aztec Indians, were skilled at hunting wild turkeys and capturing and domesticating some of them. Those domesticated wild turkeys evolved over time, learning to rely on humans and becoming tame.
Domesticating plants and animals emerged, more or less, as groups of hunters-gathers evolved into farmers and stockbreeders. So domesticating turkeys was a choice of convenience, a way to fence in dinner.
How long turkeys existed in North America before European explorers discovered the New World is uncertain. It is certain, however, that North America’s native bird has five centuries of recorded history.
One Ain’t the Other
In spite of all the questions, one thing has always been certain – people like to eat turkeys. Its meat was once reserved for the elite; and in sixteenth-century Mexico, some towns only allowed lords to eat turkeys. When comparing the two birds, the wild turkey is better known for its physical attributes and attitude. Centuries ago, after seeing a turkey for the first time, an East Indian emperor was fascinated by the wild turkey’s attitude of self-importance. Tom Kelly, a longtime turkey hunter and outdoor writer, declared the wild bird the epitome of grace.
“His neck stretched out, he looks long and lean and quick – putting every foot down as if he is walking on egg shells,” said Kelly. “When he is most impressive is when he’s coming to your call, and he gets within 30 or 40 yards and thinks there’s a girl (a hen) in sight.”
On Thanksgiving Day, you may stop to consider the domestic bird before you. Basted and stuffed, he is not the same as the wild bird often depicted, sometimes standing beside humble pilgrims, in many commercialized Thanksgiving images.
But here are some physical traits of both species:
Domestic turkeys can’t fly or run very fast. They would make easy pickings for any predator found in the wild. Their neck skin, or wattles, is heavier. Snoods, the finger-like appendage that hangs over the bill, are longer and their breasts much larger and broader. The domestic bird also possesses a temperament suited to confinement. Domestic turkeys tend to be less intelligent than their wild cousins that uses its wits to survive.
Wild turkeys are sleek, alert and built for speed and survival. Their senses are sharpened through generations of living in a harsh, unforgiving environment. A wild turkey that loses its caution will likely be eaten by predators. This constant state of caution has made the wild turkey one of the toughest game animals in the world to hunt or photograph.
What both species say is another difference:
Domestic turkeys (male) tend to be vocal and will respond with a squeaky gobble to almost any noise.
Wild turkeys (male) do not gobble as often as domestic turkeys. They’ve learned that too much talking can call in things other than turkeys, like predators and hunters. Skill and lots of practice are required for a hunter to call in an elusive wild turkey gobbler.
Domestic and wild turkeys (female) use similar calls, including the yelp, cutt, purr and kee-kee.
Where they live is another big difference:
Domestic turkeys are found in pens with other domestic turkeys. They eat corn and other poultry mixes.
Wild turkeys are found throughout forests and wooded areas across North America. They like acorns, seeds, small insects and wild berries.
For a full menu of facts about wild turkey history, restoration and biology, go to: www.nwtf.org/all_about_turkeys/